Attempting to correct some of the deeply held opinions of his most loyal supporters is becoming a priority for Arthur Scargill in speeches marking the 40th anniversary of the miners’ strike.

He blames the news media and historians for the perpetuation of myths about the dispute but is aggrieved to find that “unfortunately some of our members” are continuing to spread “lies” over the tactics deployed in 1984-85, especially during the Battle of Orgreave.

A succession of tv and radio documentaries have given the strikers and their families an unprecedented opportunity to relive their experiences but some of their recollections have riled the former President of the National Union of Mineworkers.

Their mistaken belief that pickets at Orgreave were lured into a trap and taken like “lambs to slaughter” was a version of events that Scargill said had to be challenged.

In seeking to set the record straight, he revealed with perhaps greater clarity than before, how his strike tactics had been thwarted by the union’s national executive committee.

He remained convinced that if his advice had been followed the miners could have achieved a victory at Orgreave that would have equalled their success in Birmingham at the Battle of Saltley Gate in the 1972 miners’ strike.

Scargill’s sombre reflections – a number of which were heard in silence -- did little to dampen a hero’s welcome and rapturous reception for his address at a packed Hemsworth Miners Social Club at Fitzwilliam, near Wakefield (15.3.2024) for an event to celebrate “40 years of struggle – unbowed, unbroken, and undefeated”.

So many were the requests for photographs and selfies that it took him half an hour to reach the stage.

Two warm-up speeches punctuated with shouts of “bastard” and other abuse at every mention of the names of Margaret Thatcher and Ian MacGregor (National Coal Board chairman) heralded an ecstatic introduction to “one of the finest and greatest union leaders this movement has ever seen” and a spontaneous rendition of the strikers’ chant:

“Arthur Scargill! Arthur Scargill! We’ll support you ever more.”

While he could not match the fluency and rapid delivery that had been his hallmark for so many years, he did not miss either his punch lines or the timing and targets of his jokes.

His finale was unexpected, a poignant restatement of his beliefs as a life-long trade unionist, who at the age of 86 said he had never wavered from the commitments he made as a 16-year-old.

A standing ovation was accompanied with the repeated chant, “The miners united will never be defeated”.

Given the prominence which recent documentary programmes have given to a widely held view that the Battle of Orgreave was a set-up by the state to teach the strikers a lesson, Scargill was anxious to explain events leading up to the most violent episode of the year-long dispute.

From the start of the strike, he had wanted the NUM to target the coke works at Orgreave. Power stations had coal stocks to last eight months, but the steel works had only a three-week supply and he considered they were at the greatest risk.

“If you are going into a battle, you select the weakest point and I argued that Scunthorpe, Ravenscraig and Port Talbot should be the targets. For weeks the national executive would not agree with my view.”

This changed when British Steel broke an arrangement with the NUM to ask for the delivery of only enough coke to keep the ovens warm and decided instead to resume full-scale steel production. 

“The threat was obvious. Either we stand and fight or walk away. The three weeks was important. We could have won the strike if we had taken action at Orgreave on March 10 or 12. 

“Thatcher had said the government must protect steel plants at all costs and if that means we bring in the army, we do so.”

Finally, the union’s executive committee took the decision to have a mass picket at Orgreave, starting on May 23, developing on May 24 into a major dispute, and resulting on May 30 with “loads of people arrested”, including Scargill himself.

“Following that action, we knew we should have another mass picket. We had seen what had happened at Saltley Gate in Birmingham.

“I’ll never forget it. We fought there for four days. We were being battered. I spoke at meetings all over Birmingham and to their eternal credit they agreed to support the strike.

“I’ve never seen anything like it. Twenty thousand workers from engineering and transport unions marched on the Saltley coke plant. We won the battle, and we won the strike. We could have done the same at Orgreave.

“I am fed up to the back teeth with historians and the media, and unfortunately some of our members, saying that on June 18 the police welcomed the pickets and directed them to the plant.

“It is a lie. The pickets who turned up on June 18 were planned weeks in advance and announced.”

Once the date had been agreed, Scargill said he purchased walkie-talkie radios which he distributed to strike leaders from the different coalfields so that they could keep in touch at Orgreave.

Another error that was being repeated was the claim that the pickets had never succeeded in entering the coke works. Pickets from the Doncaster area had succeeded in taking over the plant and it was two hours before the police detected that the picket leaders were keeping in touch via walkie talkie radio.

“They keep saying in propaganda that we were taken on that day like lambs to slaughter. Nothing could be further from the truth.

“Anyone who was at Orgreave knows that happened. The pickets were battered and beaten by a paramilitary police was a state force that we were opposing. If there was one weakness it was the failure of the trade union movement to come to our aid. (Applause)

“Contrary to newspaper reports – and there is a full spread in today’s Daily Mail – 10,000 pickets faced 8,500 police armed to the teeth with dogs, horses, staves, and truncheons.

“This paramilitary force went berserk, and people had to take action. I got knocked out by a shield. They keep saying I wasn’t hit by a police officer but a man from a local pit had taken a photograph of the police striking me on the back of the head with a shield.

“I was knocked unconscious. They did it to others, bringing them into Rotherham Hospital by droves.”

Scargill insisted the picket had succeeded in closing the Orgreave plant that day. Later he had seen an NCB telex which confirmed this.

“I put phone calls out from hospital to all areas. I said from tomorrow onwards put out more pickets at Orgreave not less. If we build more pickets in the way we did in 1972 at Saltley we will win this battle.

“All I can say is that we learned a lesson. Had Orgreave stayed closed the Scunthorpe steel works would have been faced with immediate closure.”

Scargill claimed the NUM had “settled” the strike on five different occasions only to have that pulled away when the government and David Hart (Mrs Thatcher’s adviser) organised the breakaway union in the Nottinghamshire coalfield.

After this “sell-out” the dispute went to the conciliation service ACAS following the 82 per cent vote by the pit deputies’ union NACODS to come out on strike.

“I wrote a proposal to NACODS we could have organised together: the NCB withdraw the pit closure plan, indicating that the five collieries for immediate closure will be kept open and no pit to close unless by joint agreement, either exhausted or unsafe.

“This proposal was accepted by NACODS. If the coal board didn’t accept the agreement, the strike would go ahead. On the eve of the second meeting, I learned that NACODS had reneged on that agreement.

“The TUC leadership for the first time in living memory urged NACODS to go on strike. They ignored it and instead NACODS signed an arrangement that led to the decimation of the mining industry.”

Scargill went step by step through the lead-up to a special conference on March 3, l985 which decided to abandon the strike and return to work.

An NUM executive meeting on February 21 voted to continue the strike but “inexplicably” a week later on February 28, five areas wrote to the NUM general secretary asking for a recall conference to agree an immediate return to work without a settlement. When this was considered by the executive committee, 12 members voted to end the strike and 12 areas including Yorkshire said the strike should continue.

“I have been asked why I didn’t cast a vote. I didn’t cast a vote because I am not bloody daft.  If I had cast a vote in favour of the Welsh area to call off the strike, I could never have lived with myself. (Applause)

“If I had voted in favour of the Yorkshire resolution, I would have been defeated in the conference and the headlines would have been Scargill defeated.

“So, I made it clear these areas, South Wales, Durham, and the other coalfields, should move their own resolution and the rest of us against.

“Mick McGahey, Peter Heathfield, and Arthur Scargill – we made clear we were in favour of continuing the strike until we won. (Applause)

“I tell you one thing. If the Women Against Pit Closures had had a vote, they would still be out.” (Applause)

In recognition of the 40th anniversary of the strike and echoing the applause at the start of the meeting for the fact that he had outlived both Margaret Thatcher and Ian MacGregor, Scargill, in somewhat halted delivery, reflected on his own heroes from the past and the principles that had guided his life as a trade unionist.

Four weeks before the rally, he had visited the nearby memorial at Featherstone to the two men who were shot during the 1893 Featherstone Riot, known by strikers as Featherstone Massacre, when miners were locked out by the pit owners.

Previously he had performed the ovation at the centenary of the day “those two men were shot in the back”. He had unveiled a monument to “those heroes of the working class”.

Two of his own heroes from the past were the Irish trade union leaders James Connolly and Jim Larkin

“Jim Larkin spoke at the graveside of the legendary Joe Hill, the American trade unionist who was framed on a murder charge.

“Larkin said build no monument. He doesn’t need one, his life, his commitment, his principle is itself a monument.

“I am now 86. From the age of 16 I have never swerved one inch from my class, from my commitment to socialism and trade unionism. I salute you.”

After a standing ovation and a prolonged rendition of “The miners united will never be defeated,” Scargill was again surrounded with admirers, including many in their twenties and thirties, asking for selfies with a legendary figure who only rarely appears in public.

The rally had opened with a rousing defence of the strike by the chair Denis Doody who described with pride how they had risen to the challenge in 1984-85.

“Thatcher came to destroy our industry, smash our communities. She did destroy the industry, but she never destroyed the spirit of our communities.

“Thatcher is dead (cheers), MacGregor is dead (cheers) but Arthur Scargill is still here 40 years after. (cheers).

“We didn’t just take on Thatcher, the apparatus of the state, the police, the judiciary and the courts, but a hostile media which distorted the truth, which lied, demonised and traduced the leadership of our union.”

John Dunn of the Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign said that while Mrs Thatcher was rusting in her grave, the mining communities were still here and have been proved right.

“Everything Arthur Scargill said has come true with bells on. We were so close to winning. We were sold out by Norman Willis and that bastard Neil Kinnock. Who knows how different this country might have been?”

Dunn recalled his arrest at Cresswell and how he had been charged with threatening behaviour and a separate charge of “watching and besetting”. As a result, he had two criminal convictions.

In March 1985 he went back to work with miners in Derbyshire. At the end of the dispute only 400 were still on strike at Markham, as eighty per cent had gone back.

“If a miner was at work on the first day of the strike and at work on the last day he was a scab. Being a scab didn’t wash off them. It is right through them, like Blackpool rock. You are the heroes; long may you hold your heads high.”

Rose Hunter of Women Against Pit Closures recalled Mrs Thatcher’s prediction that the women would get the men back to work.

“She was wrong about that. We made sure Thatcher would not starve us back to work.

“The media tell us we were defeated...Arthur Scargill is the greatest trade union leader I know (applause)...We are not defeated. Solidarity to you all.”

Her speech was rounded off with the local group of Women Against Pit Closures singing their anthem from the strike, Women of the Working Class by Mal Finch.  

Captions: Arthur Scargill; Dave Roper, South Yorkshire miner; Denis Doody, chair of the meeting; John Dunn, Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign; Arthur Scargill; Rose Hunter, Women Against Pit Closures.